February 16, 2024 (Friday)
At the Munich Security Conference, where leaders from more than 70 countries gather annually in Germany to discuss international security policy, Vice President Kamala Harris today responded to Trump’s recent attacks on America’s global leadership with a full-throated defense of global engagement.
People around the world have reason to wonder if the United States is committed to global leadership, she acknowledged. Americans, she said, must also ask themselves “[w]hether it is in America’s interest to continue to engage with the world or to turn inward. Whether it is in our interest to defend longstanding rules and norms that have provided for unprecedented peace and prosperity or to allow them to be trampled. Whether it is in America’s interest to fight for democracy or to accept the rise of dictators. And whether it is in America’s interest to continue to work in lockstep with our allies and partners or go it alone.”
Harris spoke at least in part to people at home, saying that upholding international rules and democratic values “makes America strong, and it keeps Americans safe.” Isolating ourselves and embracing dictators while we “abandon commitments to our allies in favor of unilateral action” is “dangerous, destabilizing, and indeed short-sighted,” she said. “That view would weaken America and would undermine global stability and undermine global prosperity.”
The Biden administration’s approach to global engagement is not “based on the virtues of charity,” Harris said, but rather is based on the nation’s strategic interest. “Our leadership keeps our homeland safe, supports American jobs, secures supply chains, and opens new markets for American goods. And I firmly believe,” she added, “our commitment to build and sustain alliances has helped America become the most powerful and prosperous country in the world—alliances that have prevented wars, defended freedom, and maintained stability from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. To put all of that at risk would be foolish.”
Turning to the defense of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion, she said: “we have joined forces with our friends and allies to stand up for freedom and democracy…. The world has come together, with leadership from the United States, to defend the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and to stop an imperialist authoritarian from subjugating a free and democratic people.”
The European Union has recently committed $54 billion to support Ukraine in addition to “the more than $100 billion our European allies and partners have already dedicated,” she said, noting that that support makes it clear that Europe will stand with Ukraine.
“I will make clear President Joe Biden and I stand with Ukraine,” Harris said. “In partnership with supportive, bipartisan majorities in both houses of the United States Congress, we will work to secure critical weapons and resources that Ukraine so badly needs. And let me be clear: The failure to do so would be a gift to Vladimir Putin.”
“If we fail to impose severe consequences on Russia” for its invasion of Ukraine, she warned, “other authoritarians across the globe would be emboldened, because you see, they will be watching…and drawing lessons. “In these unsettled times, it is clear,” she said. “America cannot retreat. America must stand strong for democracy. We must stand in defense of international rules and norms, and we must stand with our allies.”
“[T]he American people will meet this moment,” Vice President Harris said, “and America will continue to lead.”
News that arrived just before Harris began to speak underscored her argument: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died in a Russian prison a day after being recorded on video in court, seemingly healthy. Navalny’s crusade against Putin’s corruption had led Putin to try repeatedly to murder him, then finally in 2021 to imprison him on trumped-up charges. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, took the stage after Harris and vowed that Vladimir Putin and his allies “will be brought to justice, and this day will come soon.”
Russian elections will be held next month, and while Putin is assumed to be the certain victor, his recent disqualification of Boris Nadezhdin, who was running on a platform that opposed the Ukraine war, suggests he is concerned about opposition. Eliminating Navalny at this moment sends a warning to other Russians that, as Anne Applebaum noted in a piece today in The Atlantic, courage in opposing Putin is pointless.
In the U.S., Navalny’s apparent murder creates a political problem for Republicans. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) yesterday recessed the House for two weeks without taking up the national security supplemental bill that would support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, just as its supplies are running out.
On Saturday, former president Trump told an audience he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that are not devoting 2% of their gross domestic product to building up their militaries. Meanwhile, former Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson has been in Moscow, interviewing Putin and favorably comparing Russia to the United States.
On Monday, in Dubai, Egyptian journalist Emad El Din Adeeb asked Carlson why, when interviewing Putin, he “did not talk about Navalny, about assassinations, about restrictions on opposition in the coming elections.” Carlson replied by equating Russia and the U.S., saying: “Every leader kills people…. Some kill more than others. Leadership requires killing people.”
The death of Navalny at just this moment appears to tie the Republicans to Putin’s murderous regime, and party leaders scrambled today to distance themselves from Putin. House speaker Mike Johnson, who has resisted passing aid to Ukraine and insisted the House would not be “rushed” into passing such a measure, released a statement saying that “as international leaders are meeting in Munich, we must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition…. [T]he United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states.”
Republicans trying to carve out distance between themselves and Trump’s MAGA Republicans used the occasion to call out MAGAs, saying, as former vice president Mike Pence did, “There is no room in the Republican Party for apologists for Putin.” Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who has pushed hard for Ukraine aid, wrote: “Putin is a murderous, paranoid dictator. History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy. Nor will history be kind to America’s leaders who stay silent because they fear backlash from online pundits.”
Navalny attacked the Putin regime by calling attention to its extraordinary corruption, and somewhat fittingly, the corruption of former president Donald Trump, who won the White House with Putin’s help, was also on the docket today.
In Manhattan, in the case concerning Trump and the Trump Organization’s manipulation of financial statements in order to get better loan terms and to pay fewer taxes, Justice Arthur Engoron ordered Trump and the Trump Organization to disgorge about $355 million in ill-gotten gains as well as more than $98 million in interest on that money from the time Trump obtained it through fraud. The total came to just under $454 million. Engoron also barred Trump from running a business or applying for a loan in New York for three years. The judge ordered Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric to pay more than $4 million each and barred them from serving as officers or directors of any New York corporation or legal entity for two years.
“[D]efendants submitted blatantly false financial data to…accountants,” Engoron wrote, “resulting in fraudulent financial statements. When confronted at trial with the statements, defendants’ fact and expert witnesses simply denied reality, and defendants failed to accept responsibility….” Engoron detailed the reluctance of the Trumps, including Ivanka, to tell the truth on the witness stand, and concluded: “Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological.”
New York attorney general Letitia James, who brought the lawsuit, commented: “Donald Trump is finally facing accountability for his lying, cheating, and staggering fraud. Because no matter how big, rich, or powerful you think you are, no one is above the law.”
In his 2022 documentary about Alexei Navalny, director Daniel Roher asked Navalny what message he would leave for the Russian people if he were killed. “Listen,” Navalny answered. “I’ve got something very obvious to tell you. You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we actually are.”
I am reading these letters now, the morning after I post them. They are available at Apple Podcasts, Substack, and now Spotify, for those interested (they are free).